New Robotic-Assisted Surgery Offers Inspiring Hope for Rwanda

Africa, Featured, Health, Innovation, TerraViva United Nations


An artist’s impression of the completed Centre of Excellence in Kigali. The center supported by IRCAD is expected to assist with the training of surgeons throughout the continent with minimally invasive surgery training. Credit: Supplied

An artist’s impression of the completed Centre of Excellence in Kigali. The center supported by IRCAD is expected to assist with the training of surgeons throughout the continent with minimally invasive surgery training. Credit: Supplied

KIGALI, Nov 13 2023 (IPS) – In a newly established Centre of Excellence located in Masaka, a suburb of the Rwandan capital city, Kigali, an expanded lab, complete with innovative facilities and specialized instruments, is now giving surgeons a conducive environment to simulate how to perform minimally invasive surgeries.

French-based Institute for Research into Cancer of the Digestive System (IRCAD) played a major part in this initiative, the first ever on the African continent.

According to medical experts, in comparison to traditional open surgery, often requiring the patient to incur invasive large incisions, minimally invasive surgery procedures allow doctors to insert a camera through a small incision, or sometimes no incision at all.

Dr Alexandre Hostettler, head of the Surgical Data Science Team at IRCAD, pointed out that harnessing robotic and artificial intelligence is critical to enhance the capability of surgical treatment in Africa.

Robot-assisted minimally invasive surgery denotes the surgical technique where the robot-applied laparoscopic tools are remotely controlled by a human operator at a console.

“Performing surgeries using robotic assistance can be more comfortable for surgeons, as they can sit at a console rather than standing for extended periods, reducing physical strain,” he told IPS.

The center also aims to train medical doctors from across Africa about how to perform surgery using very small incisions, allowing the introduction of an endoscope connected to a camera with a magnified image leading to a very precise dissection of the operated organs.

Prof Jacques Marescaux, President and Founder of IRCAD, is convinced that the new center represents a turning point in surgical education and practice in Rwanda and sub-Saharan Africa. “The center is a catalyst for all African surgeons and computer scientists,” he said in an exclusive interview with IPS.

At the same time, Rwanda is striving to build an integrated medical service system that provides high-quality services and is efficient in medical facility management. Rwandan President Paul Kagame believes the key task is to keep investing significantly in public health infrastructure.

“The [new] Centre of Excellence is not serving Rwanda alone. It is serving Africa. It is also improving and taking beyond the talent we have in Africa to a much higher level,” Kagame said at the inauguration of the new facility, for which operations and running costs will be fully funded by the Government of Rwanda and IRCAD France.

Some medical experts observe that despite its numerous advantages over traditional surgery, especially the shorter hospital stay and less blood loss with lower overall costs, the new robotic surgery is not widespread in low- and middle-income countries, especially in Sub-Saharan Africa.

In addition, some researchers argue that computer-assisted navigation and robotics are sometimes challenging to use by perioperative nurses when caring for patients undergoing these procedures.

Dr Christine Mutegaraba, a surgeon from one of the private clinics in Kigali, told IPS that providing appropriate training remains critical for specialized medical practitioners to rely on these robotic surgery systems.

“Huge investment is also needed to ensure that clinics and other specialized referral hospitals are equipped with devices needed to perform these kind of surgical techniques,” Mutegaraba said.

According to the data from Rwanda’s Ministry of Health, laparoscopic was the sole type of minimally invasive surgical technique used by few medical practitioners across the country, and there wasn’t any formal training in place to develop the technical skills for additional doctors.

With the inauguration of the new center, both officials and health experts see hope in developing and advancing this technology, where specialized medical doctors will now be able to perform various kinds of surgeries.

While the introduction of innovative solutions in the health sector remains exciting for health officials, Marescaux points out that the new robotic technology is set to provide patients with high-quality medical services.

“We are working on building the largest team combined with computer scientists and surgeons in Africa,” he said.

Estimates by IRCAD show that access to surgical care in Low- and Middle-Income Countries (LMICs), such as countries in Sub-Saharan Africa, is still extremely limited, which causes a burden on the health care systems.

It said thanks to the center, African surgeons will not have to travel across the continent to receive the best training in surgery since it will be available right at home.

The 2022 World Health Organization’s study shows that strong measures are also needed to boost the training and recruitment of health workers in Africa.

Whereas the UN agency recommends that African countries significantly increase investments in building the health workforce to meet their current and future needs, new findings show that that the region has a ratio of 1.55 health workers (physicians, nurses, and midwives) per 1000 people.

Experts now believe that robotic technology will also lessen surgeon’s workload by efficiently managing the patient flow.

“As technology evolves, robotic systems are likely to incorporate more advanced features, integrating AI, augmented reality, and other technologies to aid the surgical process,” Hostettler said.

IPS UN Bureau Report


Afghan Girls, Women Deprived of Education, Find Hope in Africa

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder and President of SOLA, speaks at the Women Deliver conference in Rwanda. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/ IPS

Shabana Basij-Rasikh, co-founder and President of SOLA, speaks at the Women Deliver conference in Rwanda. Credit: Aimable Twahirwa/IPS

By Aimable Twahirwa
KIGALI, Aug 1 2023 (IPS)

When providing education to her small group of Afghan girls, who had been studying at a boarding school back home, became tenuous, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, relocated them to Rwanda.

She had set up a pioneering school under the project SOLA, the Afghan word for peace, and a short form for School of Leadership Afghanistan. But as the Taliban swept to power in August 2021, she closed the doors of the school, destroyed any school records which could help identify the girls, and on August 25, relocated 250 members of the SOLA community, including the student body and graduates from the programme, totally more than 100 girls, to Rwanda.

Basij-Rasikh, co-founder and SOLA’s President said a major challenge had been the lack of resources and capacity to teach Afghan girls after the return of the Taliban deprived right to education of girls in secondary schools and above.

As the Taliban swept back into power in Afghanistan in the summer of 2021, Shabana Basij-Rasikh, the founder of the nation’s only all-girls boarding school, initially ran the school out of a former principal’s living room. But that soon became untenable.

Speaking on the sidelines of The Women Deliver 2023 Conference (WD2023), which took place in Kigali from 17-20 July 2023, Basij-Rasikh, who completed her undergraduate studies in the United States, explained that when Kabul fell under the control of the Taliban, she managed within a short time to evacuate the entire school community to Rwanda.

“Although we managed to move the school to a safe country, it is still embarrassing and shameful for me since Afghanistan is the only country in the world where women and girls’ access to education has been suspended,” she said.

Initially, SOLA started as a scholarship program where Afghan youth would be identified and could access quality education abroad and, later on, go back to their home country as highly-skilled Afghans in whichever profession they chose.

“When the US announced that they were to withdraw their troops in Afghanistan, it created a lot of anxiety among young Afghans who were in the West hoping to return to the country.”

Basij-Rasikh regrets that some of her former students, who were able to leave Afghanistan after the Taliban’s return, are still struggling to continue their education overseas.

“We wish to see many Afghan girls return to schools,” she said, explaining that the migration status of the students in many countries restricted their access to education.

Since the school opened last year’s admissions season, Shabana Basij-Rasikh and her team have been inviting Afghan girls worldwide to apply and join the rest in Rwanda. Last year they enrolled 27 girls in their first intake.

“The major challenge is that there are several hundreds of thousands of girls who want to join our campus, but space is limited, and so places are being granted on merit and need,” Shabana told IPS.

Shabana argues investing in girls’ education is a smart investment; she is convinced that the current situation in Afghanistan must and should not be accepted or supported by any country around the world.

On September 18, 2021, a month after taking over the country, the Taliban ordered the reopening of only boys’ secondary schools. A few months later, in March 2022, according to human rights organizations, the Taliban again pledged to reopen all schools, but they officially closed girls’ secondary schools.

“These girls deserve the opportunity to realize their full potential, and the international community has an important role to play,” Shabana said.

UNESCO’s latest figures show that 2,5 million or 80 percent of school-aged Afghan girls and women are out of school.  The order suspending university education for women, announced in December last year, affects more than 100,000 students attending government and private institutions, according to the UN agency.

On the sidelines of the Women Deliver Conference 2023, Senegalese President Macky Sall pledged that his government would offer 100 scholarships for women who have seen their right to education decimated under Taliban rule in Afghanistan to pursue their university degrees in Senegal.

Rwanda is one of several African countries that agreed to temporarily host evacuated Afghans.

Sall, who was reacting to the concerns raised by Basij-Rasikhat, said his Government was ready to give chance to Afghan girls to pursue their studies.

So far, SOLA school has received 2,000 applications across 20 countries where some Afghans are living.

In 2022, it received 180 applications from Afghans living in 10 countries, but only 27 girls were admitted.

“That explains how families in Afghanistan are ready to support the girls in moving abroad to pursue their education,” Shabana said.

“Boarding schools that allow Afghan girls to study and live together are the best way to promote their education.”

IPS UN Bureau Report


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